On December 26 Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, Turkmenistan’s acting president, was shown on national television conducting meetings of the State Security Council and Cabinet of Ministers. These images showed Agagelgy Mametgeldiyev, Turkmenistan’s defense minister, seated next to Berdimukhamedov at the meeting. Although there was nothing unusual about the presence of the defense minister at these meetings, his appearance followed reports that he had been arrested alongside perhaps as many as 120 Ministry of Defense officials (Turkmen TV First Channel, December 26; Itar-Tass, December 26). In the tense political atmosphere generated as a result of President Saparmurat Niyazov’s death on December 21, the memory of Turkmenbashi’s purges and consequent internal tensions surfaced quickly in the capital. However, as the various contenders for the presidency, including Berdimukhamedov, focus on avoiding further political crisis, the security implications for Turkmenistan and Central Asia are becoming matters of concern within the region and beyond.
In fact, Berdimukhamedov rapidly emphasized that Niyazov’s policies must be continued by all presidential candidates. A televised statement on December 21 on behalf of the Security Council, Cabinet of Ministers, and the parliamentary deputies affirmed the importance of maintaining Turkmenistan’s current course in both domestic and foreign policy. Niyazov’s achievements were stressed, in particular his contribution to Turkmenistan’s independence and significantly its neutral status. Later statements from Berdimukhamedov followed this predictable pattern. “As you know, one of the main issues to be discussed at the Halk Maslahaty (People’s Council) today is a Turkmen presidential election. Our great leader built a firm foundation for our country, which is why candidates to be nominated must be devoted to our great leader, to the motherland and to the people. As I mentioned, they must follow the policy of our great leader and work in the interests of the motherland and people day and night,” Berdimukhamedov said (Turkmen TV First Channel, December 21).
Russian coverage of events in Ashgabat indicted that there would be little obvious short-term shift in Turkmenistan’s neutral status and downplayed any potential for the death of Niyazov to trigger a democratic “color revolution.” Turkmenbashi had effectively quelled these risks by thwarting the activities of foreign NGOs, in stark contrast to Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. But much more likely, according to some Russian analysts, seems the scenario that a fierce internal struggle for power will ensue in Turkmenistan.
Russia is clearly also deeply interested in avoiding the risk of a power struggle in Ashgabat, which could damage its own interests there and wants to minimize foreign influence. In this context, Moscow may present itself as a mediator. Sergei Markov, the director of the Russian Institute for Political Research, suggested that Russia could also involve Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, and India as mediators in such efforts. News of Niyazov’s death has been treated cautiously within other Central Asian countries.
Longer-term shifts in Ashgabat’s foreign policy appear possible, since other states are interested in increasing their influence in Turkmenistan. Russia will hope to maximize Turkmenistan’s integration within the Commonwealth of Independent States. Yet, much of this depends on the outcome of the presidential elections on February 11, 2007. Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of Russia’s CIS Institute, raised fears of a reshaping of energy politics in Central Asia, which he believes may affect Ukraine more than Russia, as gas prices could be revised and renegotiated (Interfax, December 21).
Mikhail Margelov, head of the Russian Federation Council’s Committee on International Affairs, highlighted the strategic importance that Russia attaches to Turkmenistan. “For us, though, in the Russian Federation, it is vitally important, regardless of developments, to keep Turkmenistan as a partner, both in the context of the international counter-terrorist struggle and in the context of the complex chess games being played out in the post-Soviet space, as well as in the economic sphere. Regardless of who will be in power in Ashgabat tomorrow, we need a friendly, comprehensible and predictable Turkmenistan” (Ekho Moskvy Radio, December 21).
Influencing events within Turkmenistan during the transition period presents serious policy challenges for Russia. Moscow’s room for maneuver is restricted, since it does not want to be regarded as interfering in Turkmenistan too openly. Moreover, the obvious CIS security structures such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization would present little allure for Ashgabat unless the country’s new leaders can be dissuaded from their neutral status. Kremlin strategists are driven by the need to prevent or disrupt U.S. influence within the former Soviet Union, but even more by the dynamics of energy politics. Less conventional mechanisms may be required in order to attract Ashgabat into formalizing security links with Russia in an exclusive manner; it may now be urgent for the Kremlin to devise these.
Energy politics could drive Moscow to reinvigorate its efforts to damage the future success of U.S. security assistance efforts in the region, such as Caspian Guard, a program intended to provide Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan with integrated air and maritime defensive capabilities to protect energy infrastructure in the Caspian. Moscow’s fear relating to Caspian Guard is that it was developed in such a way that could easily accommodate other countries interested in the initiative and the prospects of Turkmenistan’s possible entry into such ventures will cause anxiety in the Kremlin.